In the third and final Paradise Lost film, resolution is found, but not the resolution that many wanted. Ten years since their last visits to Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, and Jessie Misskelley Jr. filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger return to examine new developments in the case now infamously referred to as “The West Memphis Three” case. The three teens convicted of capital murder in 1994, for the deaths of 3 eight-year-old boys, are now grown men, having served 18 years in prison for a crime they maintain they did not commit.
Over the years, the case had become one of the most complex, mysterious, and precedent setting cases in United States legislative history. Now, in 2010, the filmmakers track down the participants in the case, including the boisterous John Mark Byers, the man that burned mock graves of his son’s convicted killers, vehemently shouting that they would all burn in hell and he would be glad to watch them do it. Presently, Byers is much calmer, and when he finally speaks about his recent feelings on the case, many are shocked to hear he now believes Baldwin, Misskelley, and Echols, the man he cursed for the better part of 20 years, are innocent men wrongly convicted.
What exactly caused this change of heart, and what exactly has dragged this case well into the next few decades after it happened? It all comes down to DNA evidence, or the lack thereof, depending on how you look at it. In 2001, the state of Arkansas, like many other states in the US, passed laws allowing old cases to be tried with new examinations of DNA and other forensic evidence. By 2007, some newly found DNA evidence was being contested in court, with the defendants fighting for a retrial based on a hair resting on the shoelaces that bound one of the murdered boys, in addition to other small pieces of evidence that have popped up in the years since the initial trials.
By now, with Byers mostly in the clear, step-father of murdered child Steve Branch, Terry Hobbs falls under suspicion at this point in the trial, with Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks speaking out and implicating Hobbs. In an act of revenge, Hobbs attempts to sue Maines, without realizing that in doing so, he put himself on trial, having to answer questions that may implicate him as a suspect. Eventually, the case comes to nothing, but it exposes Hobbs to lines of questioning he responds to inappropriately, further driving the public to suspect his guilt.
Even Byers, when he looks at the facts, not the emotions, not what the police told him, but the facts as they lay, presents a solid argument against Hobbs, and asks the damning question of the West Memphis Police: Why didn’t they look at Hobbs in the first place? They suspected Byers enough to include him in their investigation at the outset, but Hobbs has no alibi for important times on the date of the murder. Byers has a cardboard sign with the facts toward the guilt or innocence of Hobbs, and his simple board provides a striking case, much more believable than Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley doing the deed as part of a satanic ritual. At this point, one of the FBI’s finest retired profilers also steps in, to provide background of the mindset of the killer, which implicated a punishment, not a ritual of any sort. The supposed survival knife evidence is proven to be little more than animal claw marks by the leading forensic pathologist in the country.
There is no doubt that without the support of the public, largely won due to the first Paradise Lost film, that this case would have been swept under the rug. Instead, celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Peter Jackson stepped up to help the West Memphis Three, most of them admitting they saw something of themselves in the three convicted boys that shook them to their core. Without the celebrity help, and the funds raised by support groups, none of this DNA testing would have ever been done. When they are denied a final time by the original judge, the Three take their case to the Supreme Court, who announces a hearing to consider new evidence under the 2001 DNA statutes. Before that can even happen, however, a new judge in the district, with Judge Burnett gone to the state Senate, agrees to an emergency hearing long before the evidentiary hearing that could see the men acquitted.
Instead, citing the obscure ruling in the case of North Carolina vs Alford, the men were allowed to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence, and were sentenced to time served, which was 18 years and 78 days exactly. Upon doing so, the men are freed, and although they had to admit guilt, at least they are free after years of undue suffering. One of the stipulations of their plea bargain to take the Alford plea is they can never sue the state for wrongfully imprisoning them, but at this point, I don’t think that’s important to any of the men. After all, they are free men with famous friends and a lifetime ahead of them to educate others on the failings of the justice system. All three seem content to play that role, as it was the only hand they were dealt.
Filmmakers Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger set out to cover a case that they found shocking, and they gained unprecedented access to it, figuring they could provide some sort of social comment on the situation at the outset. Little did they know, they actually changed history with their film, freeing innocent men, and exposing many angles of one of the most complicated cases in US legislative history. If that in itself isn’t the highest compliment you can give a documentary film, then I guess I just miss the point entirely. My only complaint is the film’s ending feels rushed, once they were freed, it seems little work was done beyond wrapping up the story, I would have liked to see more about what they will do with their newfound freedom, and the people that helped get them there. Surely, a great companion piece will be West of Memphis, this year’s Sundance hit centering on the West Memphis Three, which focuses more on the release of the three, and the efforts of people like Peter Jackson to see them freed. The entire story will never really be told, even if their pleas are one day overturned, only then could it be possible for someone else to be arrested for the crime. In the meantime, a killer lurks somewhere in West Memphis, and despite the freedom won for the Three, this still remains the most important part of the case that this film didn’t cover well enough: A child raping, child killing monster still walks free. Is it Hobbs? Will we ever know? Maybe one day there will be enough new material to make a Paradise Lost 4, but I only hope the saga can end peacefully for the people hurt in the process, including the children, Echols, Baldwin, Misskelley, and even Mark Byers. It’s a sad day when justice is lost in America, but the bright side is three men walk free. If we can’t do anything to change the past, the best we can do as a society is move toward a better future devoid of such instances.